1. This psalm of man’s pilgrimage through all generations has in it, says Ewald, “something unusually arresting, solemn, sinking deep into depths of the Divinity. Moses might well have been seized by these awful thoughts at the close of his wanderings; and the author, whoever he be, is clearly a man grown grey with vast experience, who here takes his stand at the close of his earthly course.” The verses of the psalm have become the funeral hymn of Christendom, which every Church recites at the burial of its dead.
The slow, sad experience of life wrought out in the Psalmist a twofold result—he has learned the secret both of detachment and of attachment. This aged pilgrim grows more and more weaned from the world and detached from things trivial and temporal; he stands aloof and absolved from the accidents of existence. But he clings closer and closer still to things unseen and eternal, and is made partaker of their everlastingness. Such should be the effect of a right numbering of the days and years as they escape us—to teach at last that, though the world passeth away, and the lust thereof, yet he who doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
2. But he has learned more than that. He has learned that God is from everlasting to everlasting. It would help to cheer us if we could lay this thought to heart, numbering our days, not merely to realize their brevity, but to realize by contrast the length of God’s years. We have but a short time to work, and it is well to remember that, in order that we may be diligent. But God has a whole eternity wherein to work, and it is well to remember that also, so that we may cease from fretfulness and impatience at the slow progress of the Divine Kingdom. It is by so numbering both our years and God’s that we attain to a wise heart.
Time was Napoleon’s most precious commodity, and for every stage and state of life he had a routine from which he deviated most unwillingly. In these years his days were spent in the careful husbanding of every hour.1 [Note: W. M. Sloane, Napoleon Bonaparte, ii. 253.]
A Prayer for Instruction
1. At first thought it would seem as though we needed not to be instructed on such a subject. It would seem as though man’s mortality were so evident that it would be impossible for him to hide it from himself. Nevertheless, he does hide it from himself, and on this account no prayer is more important than the prayer of the text. The demonstration of human mortality is in a hundred generations of the dead. It is in the ground beneath our feet, which is billowy with graves full of the dust which once lived in human forms and spoke and was loved. It is in the long line of the one hundred thousand human lives which every day pass the boundary-line from time into eternity and melt into nothingness before our eyes. It is in every tick of the clock which marks the passage of some immortal soul and declares the death-rate of the world. Yet, humanity at large does not realize the mortality of humanity. So thoroughly unrealized is the mortality of man that the first condition of right living, the fundamental thought of a wise life, is ignored and undreamed of by thousands and thousands.
We can number other men’s days and years, and think they will die ere it be long, if we see them sick or sore or cold: but we cannot number our own. When two ships meet on the sea, they which are in one ship think that the other ship doth sail exceedingly fast, but that their ship goeth fair and softly, or rather standeth still, although in truth one ship saileth as fast as the other; so every man thinks that the other post and run and fly to the grave, but that himself standeth stock still, although, indeed, a year with him is no longer than it is with the other.1 [Note: Henry Smith.]
I remember, in the seminary, a fellow student who had upon the crown of his head a tumour that was constantly growing. The physicians told him that it was impossible, by any effort of human skill, to relieve him. He was waiting the moment when, in its growth, it should at last pierce the hard bone of the skull; and he knew that the moment that should be accomplished, he would fall dead. God has spared him these many years to preach the gospel. But, when others were full of frolic and fun, I noted the serious mirth of that man. He lived in a division of his days. He counted nothing in the future. He finished each day’s work when the night came.2 [Note: S. H. Tyng.]
2. The uncertainty of human life and the vanity of human wishes have always been the theme of the satirist as well as of the preacher. But satire by itself is no remedy; it can, at best, only point out the disease. In the very fact that nothing is certain about life except its uncertainty, we have a safeguard. We know roughly the limits by which we are circumscribed; we know enough to warn, but not enough to paralyse. Could we look forward with absolute certainty to half a century of health and vigour, we might be carried away even more than we are by the pride of life. Did we know that death awaited us in the near future, our spirits would be dulled, our ardour damped in carrying out legitimate schemes of useful work. As it is, we may construct our averages of life, we may frame our insurance tables for the mass with some approach to accuracy; but we cannot predict the length of an individual life, save when medical skill can anticipate by a little the decree which has already gone forth. It is a merciful dispensation that has so ordered things. God would, indeed, have us to ponder over the mysteries which surround our existence, but not in such a way as to sap the power of action in us.
Herein is the secret, the true alleviation of the burden of to-morrow; not the false and feeble attempt to oppose care by carelessness, to turn from the anxieties and troubles of life to a wild recklessness, assuming only a painful jauntiness which conceals the pain. The true remedy is not forgetfulness, but faith. This is the peace of God which passeth all understanding, which guards the heart and calms the fevered life. To the soul which has this noble courage born of faith no turn of affairs can come amiss. He is not open to the blows of chance. It is not mere resignation: it is glad confidence that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord. “If I should intend Liverpool and land in heaven,” said John Howe about a passage from Ireland. If, what then? To John Howe, who knew that the eternal God was his refuge, and underneath were the everlasting arms, what shadow could the future have? Why should he be bowed down by the burden of to-morrow? As his days, right on till the last sand had run, right on till the last gasp of breath, so would be his strength.1 [Note: Hugh Black, Comfort, 189.]
A Wise Enumeration
“Teach us to number our days.”
1. What does it mean to “number our days”? Not just to calculate the chances of our own survival in this world—which we may easily gather from the actuarial tables of an insurance company. It means to take the measure of our days as compared with the work to be performed, with the provision to be laid up for eternity, with the preparation to be made for death, with the precaution to be taken against judgment to come. It is to estimate human life by the purposes to which it should be applied, by the eternity to which it must conduct. It means to gauge and test our own career in the light of its moral and spiritual issues. And as God teaches us this, we understand the secret of true wisdom. For wisdom lies in a just estimate of the real value of things. “What shall it profit a man?” remains the final question. As Plato said, in one of his mystical sentences, it is the art of measurement which would save the soul.
2. The Psalmist’s petition in effect asks that we shall so mind the things of this world as not to forget their issues; and that we shall so mind the things of eternity as not to forget that they are to be gained through godliness, righteousness, and sobriety in using the things of time. The sublime motive in the distance must not overpower us, so that we shall be rendered unfit for discharging our present duty, small and insignificant though it may be; nor must we be so engrossed with the present duty as to lose sight of the grand motive, which redeems from littleness every duty, however small, which is a means to so great an end.
3. The true way to number our days is not so to number them that they seem to include the result of our lives, but so to number them that they seem to include simply the beginning of our lives. They and all they bring are only stepping-stones which lead us up to the threshold of a nobler life, nobler in its opportunities, occasions, and the character of its joy. Life is not mere existence, the coming and the going of breath, and its coming again; life means all that it includes of feeling and thinking and doing and growth. And the heavenly life is only the continuing of our activities and the multiplication of serviceable occasions along those high levels and stretches of being to the altitude of which we are lifted by the movement of prior activities, as birds are lifted by the movement of their wings. The man who numbers his days rightly, numbers them not as if they ended anything, but as if they began something. He thinks of them in their termination as bringing him not to an end but to a beginning—a beginning for which, if rightly used, they prepare and fit him.
“What would you wish to be doing,” was the question once put to a wise man, “if you knew that you were to die the next minute?” “Just what I am doing now,” was his reply, though he was neither repeating the creed nor telling his religious experience, but, for aught I know, posting his accounts, or talking merry nonsense with his children round the fire. Nothing that is worthy of a living man can be unworthy of a dying one; and whatever is shocking in the last moment, would be disgraceful in every other.1 [Note: James Martineau.]
The family motto of Dr. Doddridge was Dum vivimus, vivamus, which in its primary significance is, to be sure, not very suitable to a Christian divine; but he paraphrased it thus:—
Live, while you live, the epicure would say,
And seize the pleasures of the present day.
Live, while you live, the sacred preacher cries,
And give to God each moment as it flies.
Lord, in my views let both united be,
I live in pleasure, when I live to Thee.2 [Note: Gentleman’s Magazine, 1786, p. 35.]
Life is unutterably dear,
God makes to-day so fair;
Though heaven is better,—being here
I long not to be there.
The weights of life are pressing still,
Not one of them may fall;
Yet such strong joys my spirit fill,
That I can bear them all.
Though Care and Grief are at my side,
There would I let them stay,
And still be ever satisfied
With beautiful To-day!1 [Note: Charlotte F. B. Rogé.]
The Units of Life
1. Notice the writer’s unit of computation in measuring life. He speaks not of years, not even of months or weeks, but of days. There is something very impressive in such a mode of reckoning. A year is a long period; and while we may hope for years of life, be they many or few, the passage of time is not continuously felt by us. But days—how they rush past and fly away with a rapidity which on reflection is almost appalling! Even the heedless man must feel the ebb of life when it comes to be calculated by days. Yet as we see the winged hours go by, we are apt to think as lightly of them as if the series would never cease. We sleep and play and busy ourselves with what we call the serious business of life without much reference to the rising and setting of the sun. A day lost, a day half wasted, a day misused, causes us no poignant regret. We are so confident that many others are still in store for us. As they have come and gone in the past, so will they come and go in the future. We must admit, if we are pressed, that the supply is not absolutely unlimited. An end will be reached at some indefinite epoch, but not yet—not yet; and if meanwhile we are careless or prodigal, we anticipate many opportunities of “making up for lost time”—as if it were ever possible to make up for lost time!
Oh, Day, if I squander a wavelet of thee,
A mite of my twelve hours’ treasure,
The least of thy gazes or glances,
(Be they grants thou art bound to or gifts above measure)
One of thy choices or one of thy chances,
(Be they tasks God imposed thee or freaks at thy pleasure)
—My Day, if I squander such labour or leisure,
Then shame fall on Asolo, mischief on me!1 [Note: Browning, Pippa Passes.]
2. On our maps we have lines to mark the parallels of latitude—but these lines are only on the map. Crossing the equator or the tropics you see no score in the water, no line in the sky, to mark it; the vessel gives no lurch, no call is emitted from the deep; it is only the man of skill, the pilot or the captain, with his eye on the signs of heaven, who can tell that an event has happened, and that a definite portion of the voyage is completed. And, so far, our life is like a voyage on the open sea, every day repeating its predecessor—the same watery plain around and the same blue dome above—each so like the other that you might fancy the charmed ship was standing still. But it is not so. The watery plain of to-day is far in advance of the plain of yesterday, and the blue dome of to-day may be very like its predecessors, but it is fashioned from quite another sky.
Their advent is as silent as their going,
They have no voice nor utter any speech,
No whispered murmur passes each to each,
As on the bosom of the years’ stream flowing,
They pass beyond recall, beyond our knowing,
Farther than sight can pierce or thought can reach,
Nor shall we ever hear them on Time’s beach,
No matter how the winds of life are blowing.
They bide their time, they wait the awful warning
Of that dread day, when hearts and graves unsealing,
The trumpet’s note shall call the sea and sod,
To yield their secrets to the sun’s revealing:
What voices then shall thrill the Judgment morning,
As our lost hours shall cry aloud to God?2 [Note: R. T. W. Duke.]
3. Is it because God gives us time so imperceptibly that none of us estimates the full value of time? The individual moment is not looked upon as a precious grain of gold. One could prove this in many ways; but let us be satisfied with one way. Take, as an example, the names of our various methods of getting rid of time. These indicate our undervaluation of time. Notice some of these names: “pastime,” i.e., what consumes and uses up the hours easily; “amusement,” i.e., what prevents musing or meditation; “diversion,” i.e., what turns aside; “entertainment,” i.e., what holds in suspense or equilibrium. These words, which are in common use, indicate and reveal a wrong condition of thought and feeling about time. They characterize it as a drug in the market to be got rid of at any price and in any quantity, whereas it is the most precious trust we have.
The illusion haunts us, that a long duration, as a year, a decade, a century, is valuable. But an old French sentence says, “God works in moments,”—“En peu d’heure Dieu labeure.” We ask for long life, but ’tis deep life, or grand moments that signify. Let the measure of time be spiritual, not mechanical. Life is unnecessarily long. Moments of insight, of fine personal relation, a smile, a glance—what ample borrowers of eternity they are!1 [Note: Emerson.]
Forenoon and afternoon and night,—forenoon
And afternoon and night,—forenoon and—what?
The empty song repeats itself. No more?
Yea, that is life: make this forenoon sublime,
This afternoon a psalm, this night a prayer,
And Time is conquered, and thy crown is won.2 [Note: Edward Rowland Sill.]
Reckoning with a Purpose
“So teach us to number our days, that we may get us an heart of wisdom.”
The reckoning must be made with a purpose. Objectless meditations, and laments without a practical outcome, will avail nothing. The result of our counsels must be the attainment of “wisdom,” and wisdom does not consist in the mere recognition of a truth, however momentous. It is a small thing to face the fact of the shortness of human life, and call it an evil not to be avoided by any. The shallowest of heathen philosophies could tell us that. “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us an heart of wisdom.”
1. Wisdom is a great word, because the idea it symbolizes is great. It is greater than knowledge, for knowledge symbolizes only what one has received. Knowledge signifies the accumulation of facts, the gathering and retention of information, the reception on the part of our memories of whatever has been discovered. But wisdom represents that finer power, that higher characteristic of mind, which suggests the proper application of facts, the right use of knowledge, the correct direction of our faculties. Knowledge is full of error. The stubble and the chaff lie together in its chambers, and both represent it. But wisdom never errs. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It discards what is worthless, and retains only the valuable. Knowledge represents the results of human industry. Wisdom represents the characteristic of Divinity. He whose heart is applied to wisdom has put himself in such a position that he can think divinely—think as God would think in his place.
Wisdom signifies an acquisition, by means of the soul’s faculty of perception, of true knowledge; and the lack of such knowledge is ignorance. The idea, held by many people, that wisdom is a gift bestowed on a few privileged souls is erroneous. Wisdom is open to all, without price or favour. Wisdom, beautiful and divine, represents the highest development of the human soul. There is a path leading from the lowest to the highest, and it is open equally to all. As soon as a man begins to seek for knowledge and truth, he begins to advance out of ignorance and to acquire wisdom. The desire for knowledge and truth is itself an evidence of Wisdom 1 [Note: R. H. Hodgson, Glad Tidings, 42.]
2. Now wisdom for time and for eternity does not lie in the pursuit of pleasure, not even in the pursuit of happiness, but in the cultivation of a rising life. This is not to say that happiness may never be hoped for or enjoyed when it comes. If we did not desire to be happy, we should be more than human,—or less. But the only way of obtaining happiness is to renounce altogether the pursuit of it. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things”—things which go to make life happy—“shall be added unto you.” Self-consecration is the root of all true happiness. It is the one thing that ensures contentment here and hereafter; the one thing that will bring a man peace at the last. Only by losing our life in God can we hope to find it immortalized. Only by a dedication of all that we have, and are, and desire, shall we attain to the perfect existence. This is wisdom and this is happiness.
The third chapter of Dr. Hanna’s Memoir describes Dr. Chalmers’ ordination to his Fifeshire parish of Kilmany, in the Maytime of 1803; but we have to journey on to the eighth chapter and the winter of 1811, before the preacher has any Gospel to proclaim. Through the intervening years Chalmers was more interested in mathematics than in the New Testament, and in his lectures to the students of St. Andrews on chemistry and geology than in the spiritual welfare of his people. “The author of this pamphlet,” he wrote in self-defence, “can assert, on the authority of his own experience, that, after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him to engage.” Years afterwards, in a debate in the Assembly of 1825, he recanted the words and confessed his error amid the deathlike stillness of the House. “I have no reserve in saying that the sentiment was wrong, and that, in the utterance of it, I penned what was most outrageously wrong. Strangely blinded that I was! What, sir, is the object of mathematical science.? Magnitude, and the proportions of magnitude. But then, sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought not of the littleness of time; I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”1 [Note: A. Smellie, Robert Murray McCheyne, 13.]
3. The end of life is not to live the maximum number of hours in pleasure, but to form a character for all eternity; and if we want to take stock of loss and gain aright, we must look into our own hearts. We must see what treasure it is to which they are drawn, whether above or below. Let us not scruple to put this to familiar and matter-of-fact tests; there should be no false dignity about religion. Let us ask ourselves plain questions like these: Has our time been frittered away, in society, in amusement, in the thousand distractions of life—harmless, perhaps, each one taken by itself, but in the aggregate fatal to the usefulness and true greatness of life? Has God been crowded out of our thoughts? Has our hold on the unseen diminished? Have we become more encrusted with earthly things, till we find it impossible to look up, prayer being more difficult and the thought of religion more unwelcome? Is our moral courage less? Are we more afraid to confess God before men, or to protest against insults which we hear offered to His name? Are we more haunted by evil thoughts, and less able to resist them? Have we grown in patience, cheerfulness, humility? Are we more ready to do the “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness,” which have none of the charm of heroism, and remain unknown beyond the narrowest circle? Has our will grown in strength, so that we are less at the mercy of “chance desires” and sudden temptations, more at unity with ourselves, more settled in the drift and direction of our lives? And an answer we can give to these if we take the trouble—not necessarily the same answer to all, not perhaps an unqualified answer to many, but still something that will show us whether we are being carried along by the stream or making way against it.
The universe is full of miracle and mystery; the darkness and silence are set for a sign we dare not despise. The pall of night lifts, leaving us engulphed in the light of immensity under a tossing heaven of stars. The dawn breaks, but it does not surprise us, for we have watched from the valley and seen the pale twilight. Through the wondrous Sabbath of faithful souls, the long day of rosemary and rue, the light brightens in the East; and we pass on towards it with quiet feet and opening eyes, bearing with us all of the redeemed earth that we have made our own, until we are fulfilled in the sunrise of the great Easter Day, and the peoples come from north and south and east and west to the city which lieth foursquare—the Beatific Vision of God.1 [Note: Michael Fairless, The Roadmender, 90.]
Time speeds on his relentless track,
And—though we beg on bended knees—
No prophet’s hand for us puts back
The shadow ten degrees:
Yet dream we each returning spring,
When woods are decked in gold and green,
The dawning year to us will bring
The best that yet has been.
Which is an earnest of the truth
That when the years have passed away,
We shall receive eternal youth
And never-ending day.
An angel to each land and clime
Shall locust-eaten years restore,
And swear by Him who conquered Time
That Time shall be no more.1 [Note: Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, Love’s Argument, 115.]
Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 346.
Gregg (D.), Our Best Moods, 339.
Hobhouse (W.), The Spiritual Standard, 210.
Hodge (C.), Princeton Sermons, 346.
Lee (R.), Sermons, 268.
Lefroy (E. C.), The Christian Ideal, 102.
Morgan (G. E.), Dreams and Realities, 49.
Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 157.
Prothero (G.), The Armour of Light, 33.
Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 396.
Trimmer (R.), Thirsting for the Living Waters, 132.
Tyng (S. H.), The People’s Pulpit, iv. 205.
Christian World Pulpit, lviii. 65 (M. G. Pearse).
Guardian, lxvii. (1912) 418 (J. W. Willink).
Homiletic Review, l. 379 (M. G. Pearse).
Literary Churchman, xxiii. (1877) 540.
National Preacher, xxxiv. 33 (A. Barnes).
Preacher’s Magazine, viii. 557 (T. Puddicombe); xxii. 67 (J. Edwards).